The last time Art Johnson flew in a B-24 Liberator the World War II bomber didn’t land.Shrapnel from German anti-aircraft fire turned the plane into a sieve and sent it plummeting toward the enemy below. While Johnson and his crewmates all bailed out of the doomed machine over Yugoslavia, it was just the beginning of what would turn into a six-week odyssey traveling with partisans through German-occupied territory.It wasn’t until 60 years later – Friday afternoon to be exact – that Johnson, now 82 and a resident of Glenshire, got to complete that unfinished flight when he took off in a B-24 that was visiting Truckee last week.Clad in the same brown leather bomber jacket and flight suit issued to him by the Army Air Corps some six decades ago, the former nose-gunner walked with his son Buzz toward the four-engine behemoth idling restlessly on the tarmac of the Truckee Tahoe Airport. As the aircraft’s four 1,200 horsepower Pratt and Whitney engines revved, Johnson did what he had done countless times in North Africa and Italy: He climbed through the bomb bay doors into the belly of his beloved beast and then was lifted into the wild blue yonder. ***”Fantastic!” Johnson hollered when his family asked him how the flight over the Sierra went. “But I was too stiff to get into the nose turret.”
Johnson’s body may have kept him from completely retracing his steps inside the B-24, but ask the retired educator a question about his life and times during World War II and it’s as if it all happened yesterday.But it was Oct. 7, 1944. Johnson was on his 26th mission, but first after being grounded for four months with an injury. The target was the Winterhaven oil works near heavily defended Vienna.”I flew nose-gunner most of the time,” Johnson says, “and that [last] mission I was right-side waist-gunner.”But flack, bursts of anti-aircraft fire, were exploding everywhere around the formation of bombers – and Johnson’s plane, the Liberty Belle, was in the unenviable position at the rear of the squadron where gunners on the ground could hone in.”We were at 18,000 feet,” Johnson says. “We were dead ducks at the end of the formation. The flack over Vienna, Graz and Ploesti [Romania], oh, it was awful.”Several bursts of flack knocked out an engine in his plane, causing it to lose altitude.
“We threw guns, ammunition, anything we could get out of the airplane to gain altitude,” Johnson recalls.But that didn’t help and the pilot gave the word to bail out. Johnson remembers counting all 10 crew members’ parachutes opening. But once reassembled on the ground, thanks to Tito’s partisan fighters, the B-24’s tail-gunner was missing.On the run toward homeDuring the six weeks Johnson and the rest of the crew were on the ground in Yugoslavia, he lost 35 pounds and had to be hoisted onto a horse by his mates because a nasty flu had sapped his strength.”The telegram came that he was missing in action. That was a rough seven weeks,” says Pauline Johnson. “He wrote me every day of the war. I knew he was missing before we got word.”
The men finally made it back to safe territory and eventually back to Italy and their base.When he was discharged, Johnson headed back to Pasadena, where in what seemed like another lifetime, he had proposed to Pauline.”I hadn’t seen her in two years and two weeks,” Johnson recalls.Johnson turned 82 on Tuesday. His last ride on the last flying B-24 was the day before the Memorial Day weekend. On Monday he watched the dedication of the WWII memorial in Washington, DC.”I couldn’t have planned it better,” Johnson says.